Making space for prayer in schools
Prayer Spaces in Schools is a 24-7 Prayer initiative that has been in existence since 2008. It has been growing fast in the last few years and Lent is always a busy time of year, full of great opportunities in schools.
The idea behind the initiative is to enable young people from the ages of 5 to 18 to explore prayer and faith generally, in a safe, creative and interactive way.
Back in 2008 a handful of people from around the country came up with the idea of setting up creative prayer spaces in primary and secondary schools and at least six were initiated then. The feedback was so positive that a further 12 were set up in 2009.
During the following year, having gathered stories and feedback from those prayer spaces, the team put together a resource pack, including positive examples, good practice guidelines and links to the curriculum that teachers had identified. More than 100 of the packs were sent out within the first few months of 2010.
Since then, the momentum has been building. I caught up with Rachel Roxburgh, co-ordinator of operations, to find out more.
"Some schools have focused on a prayer space for just a day, others now plan an annual week into their school calendar while others have set up permanent spaces," she explains.
"In places such as Oxford, teachers and educational professionals are working to create prayer spaces across the whole area, networking with one another to do so.
"While Prayer Spaces in Schools has its roots in Christian practices it is open to children of all faiths – and none. It simply gives them a reflective, creative space to explore some of the wider questions of life. It has been fantastic to see the response of both professionals and students to this simple idea."
Last year over 270 prayer spaces were set up and an estimated 300,000 pupils have used them over the last six years. The press has also picked up on their positive impact – in March BBC Gloucester featured the prayer space at Gloucester Academy. The presenter said, "It was an amazing morning. I have to say I've never seen anything like that. It absolutely blew me away – absolutely incredible. I kept thinking 'I wish I'd thought of that, I wish I'd thought of that, I wish I'd thought of that!'"
The radio coverage included the story of a student who used the prayer space to say sorry for fighting and went on to change his behaviour and also promote positive behaviour in the school.
Gillan Scott, who writes the God and Politics in the UK blog, is also a teacher. He experienced Prayer Spaces in School firsthand – and his colleagues' responses – when a team of local Christians visited his school for a week again this year:
"It was great to see so many people positively engage with the prayer space – even one of the cleaners made use of it and found it a really affirming experience. The week was full of openness. Staff I spoke to were pleased to see it back for another year and valued the opportunity for students to take a break from studying and reflect on some deeper issues for a few minutes.
"This was an incredibly powerful opportunity for unchurched students, often with very little understanding of faith, to explore the nature of prayer and talk to the prayer space team about God and the meaning of life. One student said, 'The prayer space stopped me in my tracks and told me who I was.'"
The feedback from schools is overwhelmingly positive across the board. One head teacher from Cumbria said it was "one of the most effective sessions I have seen in my career" while a teacher from Northamptonshire commented: "I don't think I have ever run a project that has been so universally rewarding to all who came into contact with it."
Students, too, are extremely positive. Here is a range of comments (from the Prayer Spaces in Schools website), responding to various different aspects of the prayer spaces experienced:
"I didn't know that God forgives and forgets – I feel much better!"
"Am I really made in God's image?" Year 4 student, who seemed very shocked but had a big smile on her face afterwards
"I was thinking hard about God and I think He was with me."
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"It made me realise that prayer isn't just to do with myself."
"Before I did this I didn't believe in God and now I do."
"It helped me let go of the problems I find hard to admit."
"Praying can be fun."
"My favourite prayer station was the World Cup one – we might support the teams but we don't know what it's like to live in their country." Year 7 student
"I liked thinking about my hopes and dreams because it makes you think more positively. Often we are made to think about all the negative stuff." Year 7 student
"I liked the station where we chose pictures that explained our life at the moment. It made me realise I was stressed and that I needed to be calmer." Year 9 student
I asked Rachel what was planned specifically for this year's Lent period: "Lots of schools and churches have been working together to plan events and activities to mark the season. In fact, over 50 prayer spaces were hosted in different schools during March - the most in any single month so far - and many of these were themed around the Easter story. Creative Easter-themed prayer activities can be downloaded from our website to help those hosting prayer spaces during this season."
One school that transformed an RE room into a Lent Prayer Space for a week in March was Cardinal Newman Catholic School in Hove. Nearly 700 students from years 7 to 9 used the space during RE lesson time, and another 239 during the break-time sessions.
Students and teachers alike commented on how relaxed the space had been – one pupil said that they were "amazed that their whole class had engaged with the prayer space, even the naughty ones!"
Becky Davies, Youth and Schools worker from Off the Fence, helped host the prayer space. She explains that the five prayer stations were based on some of the Stations of the Cross.
"At one of the stations we saw how Jesus prayed before he was arrested because he needed God's strength to go through with what was ahead. The students then used the plasma ball and bubble tube to think about their own worries and talk to God about them. Many students loved using the plasma balls to think about how God is always there when we talk to him.
"At another station we looked at how Jesus' ultimate purpose was the cross. This gave students an opportunity to think about God's purpose for their own life and talk to God about their future. There were many prayers from the students asking for God's guidance and help with their future.
"At the other stations we prayed for people we can help using our hands, thanked God that he made us all unique and special and shredded our sorry prayers as a sign of God's forgiveness."
Roxburgh reflects: "Our aim is to resource and encourage local Christians to serve the spiritual and pastoral life of their local school community – and that's not just the students, but the staff and the parents as well.
"Having supported more than 750 prayer spaces in primary and secondary schools over the past years, we're confident that prayer spaces work. They work because they enable the local church to give its best gifts of care and hospitality and creativity. They work because they help the school to fulfil some of its statutory obligations. And they work because the students and staff alike need a space to just be, to pause and reflect on their own life journey, on their relationships, on how they engage with the world around them, and also on what they believe."
Find out more about Prayer Spaces in Schools and how to set one up at www.prayerspacesinschools.com